No. 9 USC vs. California: Trojans hold off Bears in shootout behind Caleb Williams

USC wide receiver Tahj Washington is tackled by California safety Craig Woodson after a 17-yard catch.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington (16) is tackled by California safety Craig Woodson after a 17-yard catch in the first half Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Caleb Williams and No. 9 USC defeated Cal in a high-scoring game highlighted by Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams making crucial plays down the stretch.

USC prevails despite defensive lapses on a day when national powers fall

As contenders fell and chaos reigned among the ruling class of college football, Tuli Tuipulotu stood amid the wreckage Saturday night with his arms raised in triumph. It wouldn’t be long before the triumph turned to feverish relief.

USC’s last two games had been difficult for its star defensive lineman — and the Trojans defense as a whole. Over 1,100 yards had been given up. Nearly 40 tackles had been missed. A previously unblemished record and clear path to the College Football Playoff was lost in the process, raising further doubt about the trajectory of a Trojans defense struggling to stop anyone with so much as a pulse.

On a Saturday when three of the nation’s top six teams — No. 1 Tennessee, No. 4 Clemson and No. 6 Alabama — were all stopped in their tracks, USC nearly found itself among the many fallen contenders. What began as an impressive bounce-back performance for its defense nearly devolved into a nightmare before USC escaped with a 41-35 victory.

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USC holds off Cal for homecoming victory

After a nervy ending, USC can enjoy a happy homecoming game with a 41-35 win over California at the Coliseum on Saturday.

USC fought off a late Cal comeback attempt as the Bears scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and inched within one possession twice. But Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams provided an answer every time.

Williams threw for 360 yards and four touchdowns on 26 of 41 passing, outdueling Cal’s Jack Plummer, who threw for a season-high 406 yards with three touchdowns and one interception on 35 of 49 passing.

Williams got help from Tahj Washington and Michael Jackson III, who each eclipsed 100 receiving yards in place of leading receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams. Washington had 112 yards and one touchdown with seven catches. Jackson added 115 yards with two touchdowns on five catches.

Cal’s 469 yards were its second-most this season, trailing a 599-yard outburst against Arizona. The team entered the game as ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in total offense and 11th in scoring.


Cal adds touchdown and two-point conversion to pull within six points of USC

Cal answered USC’s touchdown with a score of its own and raised the Trojans a two-point conversion to pull within six points.

The Bears, who scored on a four-yard touchdown run from Jaydn Ott then added the two-point conversion with a shovel pass from Jack Plummer to Monroe Young, trail 41-35 with 2:31 remaining.

The Bears have 469 yards, the second-most for the struggling offense this season. Plummer has passed for a season-high 406 yards and three touchdowns on 35-of-49 passing. He’s dueling USC’s Caleb Williams, who has 360 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-41 passing.


Caleb Williams answers Cal’s comeback attempt

Cal comeback? No sweat for Caleb Williams.

The quarterback led a calm scoring drive to settle USC down after Cal’s scoring flurry and capped the six-play, 77-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Lake McRee.

Michael Jackson III connected with Williams on a 29-yard completion on a scramble drill to get the drive going. Jackson rushed for 19 yards on the next play, taking a lateral from Travis Dye and reversing the field behind Williams, who took the role of lead blocker.

Williams has completed seven consecutive passes while throwing for 360 yards and four touchdowns on 26 of 41 passing. Jackson has 115 receiving yards and two touchdowns on five catches.


Cal pulls to within one possession after touchdown

Don’t go to sleep just yet.

Cal scored on a three-yard pass from Jack Plummer to Jeremiah Hunter to pull within one score. The Bears capitalized on their surprise onside kick to set up the scoring drive, but remain down by seven points because of a blocked extra point. Nick Figueroa blocked the attempt.

Plummer completed seven of nine passes on the drive, including three critical third-down attempts that kept the drive alive. He found Jaydn Ott for eight yards on third-and-seven to put the Bears on the USC three-yard line and finished the drive one play later with a throw to Hunter.

Plummer is 29 of 38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.


Cal capitalizes on USC’s defensive mistake

Pac-12 After Dark mode, activated.

A blown coverage in the secondary led to Cal’s Mavin Anderson getting wide open for a 47-yard touchdown catch and Cal doubled-down with a surprise onside kick.

The Bears, trailing 34-21, recovered at their own 49-yard line to keep their offense on the field with 12:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. They scored quickly and trail 34-27 after missing the extra-point attempt.


USC wins another third quarter to stretch lead

USC outscored Cal 14-7 in the third quarter to take a 34-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Trojans have outscored opponents 80-30 in third quarters this year.

Caleb Williams is 23-for-38 for 313 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback has another touchdown on the ground. Michael Jackson III has two touchdowns on four catches for 86 yards and Tahj Washington leads USC with 112 receiving yards on seven catches.


Tahj Washington joins the Trojans’ touchdown party

After trading three-and-outs with Cal, USC added another touchdown with an eight-yard pass from Caleb Williams to Tahj Washington.

The Trojans led 34-14 with 1:18 remaining in the third quarter. Williams has three touchdown passes and 313 yards on 23 of 38 passing.

Running back Travis Dye was critical on the drive with a big rush of 27 yards. He has 76 yards and one touchdown in 11 carries.

Washington leads the Trojans with seven catches and 112 yards.


Cal offense is clicking and keeping up with the Trojans

Cal’s late-night coffee has finally kicked in.

After seven scoreless drives, the Bears got back into the end zone with a two-yard touchdown pass from Jack Plummer to Monroe Young. USC leads 27-14 with 7:27 remaining in the third quarter.

Plummer lofted a 58-yard pass to Jeremiah Hunter that put the Bears in the red zone. USC forced third-and-goal from the seven-yard line, but negated an incomplete pass with a pass interference call against Calen Bullock in the end zone. The Bears scored on the next play.


Michael Jackson III with another thriller

Caleb Williams dropped a short screen pass off to Michael Jackson III and the receiver did the rest.

Jakson broke through a tackle and ran for a 59-yard touchdown to put USC up 27-7 with 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter. Jackson has both of USC’s receiving touchdowns on as many catches for 66 yards.

Caleb Williams is 19 of 31 for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

The Trojans forced a punt from Cal on the first drive of the second half.


Cal starts on offense to begin second half

And we’re back.

Cal gets the ball to start the second half after deferring the opening kickoff.

Quarterback Jack Plummer is 13-for-19 for 143 yards and one interception as the Bears, trailing 20-7, stalled after an impressive opening drive.


USC in command over Cal as defense dominates first half

Cal jumped out to an unexpected start, but order has been restored in a 20-7 halftime lead for USC.

The Trojans finished the first half strong with an interception from Calen Bullock that led to a touchdown pass from Caleb Williams to Michael Jackson III. USC, which has punted only 18 times this season, punted four times in the first half.

Williams is 17-of-28 passing for 203 yards and one touchdown with a rushing score. Tahj Washington has his second consecutive 100-yard game with 104 receiving yards on six catches.

USC is outgaining Cal 252-179. The Bears had 76 yards on their opening drive.


Calen Bullock interception leads to USC touchdown

It’s been a sleepy first half, but an interception by USC’s Calen Bullock with 1:12 remaining in the second quarter injected some life into a quiet USC crowd.

Cal quarterback Jack Plummer threw deep, but over the head of his intended receiver, allowing Bullock to soar for the interception. USC has 14 interceptions this year and entered the game with the country’s best turnover-margin at plus-two per game.

The Trojans converted the takeaway into a touchdown with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Williams to Michael Jackson III to go ahead 20-7 with 53 seconds remaining in the first half.

Williams is 17 of 28 for 203 yards and one touchdown. Tahj Washington, who caught a 39-yard pass from Williams two plays after Bullock’s interception, has 104 receiving yards on six catches.


USC’s fourth-down stop ends promising Cal drive

After giving up 76 yards and a touchdown on Cal’s opening drive, USC’s defense has buckled down to protect the Trojans’ 13-7 lead late in the second quarter.

Cal, which had 34 combined yards on three drives following its opening touchdown, converted three third downs on a drive that chewed up more than five minutes.

Jake Plummer threw completions on third-and-12 and fourth-and-13 to keep the chains moving, but came two yards short on third-and-12 with a 10-yard completion to Marvin Anderson. Plummer’s pass on fourth down was behind Jeremiah Hunter, giving the ball back to USC on the Trojans’ 23-yard line.

Tuli Tuipulotu notched a sack on the drive — his second sack of the night.


Travis Dye keeps touchdown streak alive and puts USC ahead

Travis Dye is making his rushing touchdowns a weekly tradition as familiar as USC’s fight song.

The running back scored on a 12-yard rush to put USC up 13-7 with 11:44 remaining in the second quarter. Dye has scored a rushing touchdown in eight consecutive games. Entering the game, he was the first USC player to score rushing touchdowns in seven straight games since Ronald Jones II in 2016.

USC converted a key fourth down to set up Dye’s touchdown. Caleb Williams drew a Cal defender offside on fourth-and-five, which would have been enough for the conversion, but he didn’t need the penalty when he found Terrell Bynum for a 20-yard completion. Dye finishing the drive on the next play.


USC trails by one point after one quarter

USC sandwiched a rushing touchdown between two punts and trails 7-6 after the first quarter because of a botched extra-point attempt.

Cal, which will start the second quarter with third-and-eight from its own 22-yard line, is averaging 10.3 yards per play compared to USC’s 5.7.

Caleb Williams is 10 for 15 passing for 102 yards with a one-yard rushing touchdown. Tahj Washington, who is coming off 118 receiving yards last week, has a team-high 44 receiving yards on three catches.

If you’re scoreboard watching, No. 10 LSU upset No. 6 Alabama in overtime and Notre Dame beat No. 4 Clemson, so USC’s path to the College Football Playoff got a little clearer. The Trojans still have to take care of Cal tonight and likely run the table in November against Colorado, UCLA and Notre Dame.


Caleb Williams sneaks in for USC touchdown

USC threw the ball seven consecutive times to get into the red zone,then let the running game do the rest to score on a one-yard quarterback sneak from Caleb Williams.

A bad snap on the extra point kept USC down 7-6 with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter.

Williams is seven for 10 for 70 yards. Travis Dye, who had back-to-back red zone carries on the scoring drive, has four rushes for 13 yards.


Cal scores quickly on short-handed USC defense

Not only did USC uncharacteristically punt on its first possesion, but Cal, the second-worst scoring offense in the Pac-12, scored easily on its first drive.

The Bears sliced through USC’s maligned defense with a five-play, 76-yard touchdown drive capped by a 10-yard rushing touchdown from Jaydn Ott. Ott patiently picked his way through the USC defense, forcing several missed tackles. Cal leads 7-0 with 10:29 remaining in the first quarter.

USC allowed 562 yards against Utah on Oct. 15 and 543 against Arizona, the first time USC has allowed 500 yards or more in back-to-back games since 2013. USC has a fortunate matchup against Cal (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12), which is ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in total offense and averages 23.4 points per game.


Injuries force starting lineup shifts for USC

Without Jordan Addison and Mario Williams for a second game in a row, USC started Brenden Rice, CJ Williams and Tahj Washington at receiver.

An apparent injury to left tackle Bobby Haskins lifted Mason Murphy into the starting position for the second week in a row. The redshirt freshman started last week at right tackle and is already impressing teammates and coaches. Haskins is dressed in pads on the sideline but did not participate in most of the team’s pregame warmups.

The Trojans punted on their first possession.


USC starts on offense against California on Homecoming

Hello, this is Thuc Nhi Nguyen and I will be piloting our live blog from the Coliseum tonight. I’m joined by USC beat reporter Ryan Kartje and columnist Helene Elliott as the No. 9 Trojans face California.

USC is coming off 45-37 win over Arizona last week when quarterback Caleb Williams carried a short-handed offense with a career-high 411 passing yards and five touchdowns. He’s thrown for five touchdowns in back-to-back games and will get the ball to start the game after Cal (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) won the coin toss and deferred.

The Trojans (7-1, 5-1) are thin at inside linebacker without Eric Gentry and Ralen Goforth, who are both out with injuries. They’re also without top wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.


First College Football Playoff rankings show USC and UCLA need help reaching top four

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 17, 2022. USC head coach Lincoln Riley directs pre-game warmups.
USC coach Lincoln Riley directs his players during warmups before playing Fresno State in September.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With Tuesday’s release of the first College Football Playoff top 25 rankings, we can officially start thinking about the road to SoFi Stadium for the CFP national championship on Monday, Jan. 9.

And most important: What is the path to the title game for USC and UCLA, which have slipped into the top 10 of some of the polls with one month left in the season?

The selection committee confirmed what hopeful Trojans and Bruins fans already knew — the winner of the Nov. 19 crosstown rivalry showdown is going to need some help to be one of the four teams selected to the bracket with a shot at SoFi glory. The good news? The machinations are not totally unreasonable.

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Jordan Addison and Mario Williams out for USC vs. Cal

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison carries the ball against Utah last month.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

USC will once again be without both of its top receivers.

The ninth-ranked Trojans will take on California without wideouts Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, who also missed last week’s win over Arizona due to injury.

Addison injured his leg against Utah last month, while the nature of Williams’ injury remains unclear.

USC coach Lincoln Riley expressed some optimism this week that USC would get several injured players back by Saturday night.

“None of these guys had just simple, out-a-couple-of-days injuries. But [they made] a lot of improvement,” Riley said. “The bye week obviously helped. It was good to be able to get through the last game without playing those guys and that time has certainly aided in it. So we’ll have a bunch of close calls leading into Saturday.”

Linebackers Eric Gentry (ankle) and Ralen Goforth (hand) also will not play in Saturday night’s game. But USC will get offensive guard Andrew Vorhees back up front.


USC’s veteran linemen see bright future for young OT Mason Murphy

USC offensive lineman Mason Murphy (76) and teammates look up to the scoreboard during a win over Stanford on Sept. 10.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Last summer, when USC first divided into separate weight-lifting sessions, Justin Dedich made a request. The redshirt senior and soon-to-be captain wanted to switch into the same group as redshirt freshman Mason Murphy.

Dedich had seen something special in the young offensive tackle, and he was not the only one within USC’s veteran offensive line group. Several months later, when Murphy made his first start as USC’s right tackle Saturday against Arizona, Dedich and redshirt junior lineman Jonah Monheim both referred to Murphy as the Trojans’ “most talented” player up front.

“That kid has a lot in front of him,” Dedich said, “and he’s working to get it.”

“There’s no doubt,” Monheim added, “he’s such a talented kid.”

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Tuli Tuipulotu finds his own way to be the leader of USC’s defense

USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu pursues the ball against Fresno State on Sept. 17.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

He has heard the word many times over many months and tried as hard as he might to live up to its weighty label, but eight games into a standout junior season, Tuli Tuipulotu still isn’t entirely comfortable acknowledging it out loud.

“I don’t think I’m a leader,” USC’s star defensive end declared this week.

His coaches and teammates wholeheartedly disagree. The stats tell a similar story, as his seven sacks through the Trojans’ first six games led all of college football at the time. Tuipulotu’s tear has slowed somewhat since with offenses setting out specifically to stop him. But as USC enters the stretch run of its first season under Lincoln Riley, with California awaiting Saturday, there’s a convincing case to be made that no Pac-12 defensive lineman has been more disruptive than the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Tuipulotu.

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USC defense looks to get back on track against Cal: Three things to watch

Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing catches a pass in front of defensive back Max Williams during the Trojans' win Oct. 29.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

After a second straight game during which his defense allowed more than 500 yards and missed at least a dozen-and-a-half tackles in the process, Alex Grinch was asked whether he feels USC might be a few minor fixes away on defense — or if bigger-scale changes were required to right the ship.

“It feels awful is how it feels,” USC’s defensive coordinator answered.

It’s been a season of brutal honesty from Grinch, whose group is allowing more than 400 yards per game, a total that lags far behind the rest of the Pac-12’s contenders and ranks right in line with USC’s porous defense from a year ago. Though, a terrific turnover margin — plus-16, tops in the country — and stellar play in the red zone this season — 71.4% conversion rate allowed, 11th-best — has saved USC’s defense from completely imploding like it often did in 2021.

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USC vs. California: Betting odds, lines and picks against the spread

USC wide receiver Kyron Hudson leads his teammates onto the field before a game against Washington State on Oct. 8.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

No. 9 USC (7-1, 5-1 in the Pac-12) has been installed as 21-point home favorites vs. Cal (3-5, 1-4) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Trojans are in second place in the conference, half a game ahead of UCLA and Utah which have played one fewer game. They’re coming off a 45-37 win at Arizona on Saturday in which they failed to cover as 14-point favorites, so this week’s spread is a higher hill to climb. However, Cal enters this game on a four-game losing streak, failing to cover in three of those games. Last week, Oregon beat Cal 42-24 and covered as a 16.5-point favorite.

The vast majority of early bettors have been laying the points with USC. Seventy-four percent of the bets at DraftKings have been on USC -21 as of Thursday morning; however, 54% of the money (usually the sharper side) has been on the Golden Bears. For the most up-to-date betting trends, see VSiN’s college football betting splits page.

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